In its recent decision in Bernier v. Fredette, the Appeals Court affirmed a Land Court ruling concerning the importance of monuments in deed descriptions. In real estate parlance, a monument is a fixed object used by surveyors to establish land boundaries. While it doesn’t break new ground, this decision provides a good illustration of the legal principles governing the interpretation of old deeds and titles.
In Bernier, a triangular piece of land along a common boundary triggered a dispute between the adjoining property owners. The two properties, located in Acushnet, date back to the 1870s. Lot 13 is owned by the plaintiff, Bernier, and Lot 16 is owned by the defendant, Fredette. To prove his case, Bernier began by placing Lot 16 on the ground according to the deed description and the location of four out of the five monuments described. By examining abutter deeds, Bernier was able to determine the distance and direction of the northern, southern and eastern boundary lines of his own lot. Bernier then used the directional and distance calls in the deed to locate the western boundary. The Land Court concluded that Bernier’s approach to locating the boundary on the ground was reasonable, and therefore the disputed area was part of Bernier’s lot.
It is well-established that a deed description is the best barometer of the grantor’s intent. Here, the Land Court held that the original grantor intended for the referenced monuments to provide the bounds of the property. Further, when monuments are referred to in a deed, they have priority over directional calls and courses. Due to a scrivener’s error in one directional call, the monuments at issue did not establish the boundary perfectly. However, the Land Court ruled that the original grantor’s intent was for the monuments to delineate the lot. Even though Bernier could not locate the fifth monument due to the creation of a cranberry bog, the court held that Bernier’s approach of revising the erroneous directional call to connect the monument boundaries of the lot was proper. In the words of the Land Court, to conclude otherwise would leave “a gore of unconveyed land between Lot 16 and its eastern abutters.”
The Appeals Court observed that a trial judge has significant discretion in deciding issues of fact, assigning weight to testimony, and assessing the credibility of witnesses. The Land Court judge made a determination that Bernier’s approach to locating the lot with four of the five monuments was more reasonable than Fredette’s approach. Fredette located the property using another deed that referenced the fifth monument, even though 4,000 feet of the land was not surveyed. The Appeals Court ultimately concluded that “where there are two permissible views of the evidence, the factfinder’s choice between them cannot be clearly erroneous.”
The takeaway: Known monuments are afforded great deference in construing lot boundaries, and a trial court’s decision will not be overturned on appeal if it rests on the trial judge’s findings of fact.
Sam DeLuca is a 2014 graduate of Suffolk University Law School and will be admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in June, 2014. He is currently serving as an intern at the Massachusetts Land Court.